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Colorado Springs City Council votes to hire own outside counsel

By: Monica Mendoza
September 24, 2013 Updated: September 24, 2013 at 11:41 pm
Caption +
Colorado Springs City Attorney Chris Melcher arrives at the federal courthouse in Denver on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, for a hearing over a Colorado Springs, Colo., ordinance banning panhandling. The ACLU wants a temporary halt to the so-called "no-solicitation zone." The ACLU argues that free speech is wrongly curbed by the ordinance approved last month in Colorado Springs. If approved, the temporary restraining order would prevent enforcement of the new law until the lawsuit is concluded.(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Members of the Colorado Springs City Council told City Attorney Chris Melcher on Tuesday they would fire him if they could because they don't trust him to give them an unbiased opinion - one that does not side with Mayor Steve Bach's point of view.

But Melcher is an appointee of the mayor, so that wasn't an option. Instead, they slashed his salary by $4,000 and told him they are frustrated and unhappy with his work.

"I would be amazed that you think you are giving us good customer service," council president Keith King told Melcher during the City Council meeting.

Melcher's salary was cut to $183,736 as part of an ordinance approving new salary ranges for the city's civilian employees. His was the only salary cut in a 5-3 vote with one council member absent.

Bach said the council's move to single out Melcher was shameful and said it sends a message that the council hopes Melcher leaves.

"To me it's retribution because you don't like his legal opinions," Bach told the council.

King said council members hardly get legal opinions from Melcher. Instead they get pages of policy pushing the mayor's agenda that don't answer their questions.

"We have not been given the service that gives us the ability to serve the community," King said.

That's why council members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution to hire an attorney to advise them regarding stormwater issues. The council and the mayor are at odds on how to pay for and manage stormwater projects.

The relationship between the City Council and the city attorney has changed under the city's new strong-mayor form of government. Previously, the City Council set the budget, hired and fired employees and ran the city. Two years after Colorado Springs voters elected Bach as the city's first strong mayor, there are still unanswered questions in the city's charter and codes about the responsibilities of the executive and legislative branches.

"There are two branches of government but one point of view and who decides, that's you," Councilman Joel Miller said to Melcher.

Council members say they have scrutinized every line of the city charter looking for areas where they can exercise more authority, including in the city's budget process.

They say the city attorney has cut them off at every turn - the council has no power, can't set salaries and can't make line item changes in the budget.

In the most recent debate, council members asked Melcher for legal definitions of authorities and districts and the difference between how fees and taxes could be set up. They sought the information in preparation for a debate on how best to deal with the estimated $700 million in backlogged stormwater needs.

City Council approved a resolution Tuesday saying it supports a regional solution and wants to work with El Paso County and other neighboring districts on stormwater project funding.

But Bach has backed away from a regional partnership with El Paso County and other neighboring cities on the stormwater issue. He plans to unveil a consultant's report on stormwater projects next month and called a resolution in support of a joint stormwater solution premature.

Council members said Melcher's memos and advice on stormwater represent Bach's position, not legal advice. Council approved $35,000 for an economic analysis and outside legal opinion on stormwater issues.

Melcher said the city's charter calls for one city attorney to represent all city interests, even in the instances when the City Council does not like the advice it gets. There is no need for the council to hire an outside attorney when his office has many attorneys who have worked on stormwater issues, he said.

"It would be a waste of taxpayers' dollars," Melcher said.

Melcher said it was a shame the City Council spent so much time and effort on the attorney issue - at least four hours Tuesday - when there are bigger issues facing the city.

"I am very proud of the job we have done representing City Council," he said.

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